Picking the Perfect Pet: The Best Starter Pets for Families

Dog or cat? Hamster or guinea pig? Experts help you figure out which animal is right for your young family.
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Even if you've vetoed your kid's pleas for a pet in the past, you may want to revisit the idea. "It's ideal to bring home your family's furry friend when your child is 5 or 6. At this age, kids fully comprehend that pets are living creatures and not moving stuffed animals," says Carolyn Ievers-Landis, Ph.D., associate professor of pediatrics at Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, in Cleveland. "A pet fosters a child's desire to be a caregiver, which usually emerges around this age."

What's more, animals are great friends for kindergartners and first-graders. In a study of 5-year-olds at Purdue University, more than 40 percent said they turn to their pet when they feel sad, angry, or have a secret to share. "We also found that 5- and 6-year-old pet owners expressed more empathy to their peers than those who don't have an animal around the house," says researcher Gail F. Melson, Ph.D., professor of child development and family studies.

Ready to add a new member to your brood? Use our expert guide to decide which popular pet best fits your kid's personality and your family's lifestyle.

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Guinea Pigs

"Guinea pigs are affectionate and love to be held," says Gail Buchwald, senior vice president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Adoption Center in New York City. "They often make a whistle when they see their child-friend. It's immediate gratification for a first-time pet keeper." When young guineas are excited, they do the cutest thing called popcorning—basically, leaping into the air repeatedly like a popping popcorn kernel.

Guinea pigs, which typically live for three to eight years, are social creatures and like to be with other guineas (adopt the same sex to prevent mating). However, one alone will do just fine as long as it gets plenty of attention. It needs a large cage and requires food pellets, fresh vegetables containing vitamin C, grasses, hay, and water, says Jennifer Freeman, D.V.M, a veterinarian at PetSmart. It also needs its hair brushed regularly (a perfect kid chore!). You'll need a minimum of 4 square feet of cage space per pig and you should take them out as much as possible for exercise and stimulation.

Like rats – which also make a great starter pet – these animals can carry salmonella bacteria, so skip getting one if your child is younger than 5. Although salmonella is uncommon and can be prevented by cleaning the cage often, you should still always remind your child to wash her hands after handling her guinea pig.

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Betta Fish

A fascinating thing about these finned friends? “They’re social! After you’ve had them for awhile, they recognize your voice and come up to the front of the tank,” says Lara A. Sypniewski,D.V.M., clinical professor of small-animal medicine at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. But that friendliness disappears when one is placed in a tank with another betta. (They’ll fight to the death!) It’s better to pair a single betta with mellow tropical fish like danios or tetras.

A betta fish requires an aquarium that can fit at least 3 to 5 gallons of water. Install a filter if you prefer monthly water cleanings to weekly ones, says Dr. Freeman. Even a toddler can assist with feedings; you measure out the food and she can drop it in. With proper care, a betta fish can live for two to three years.

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Hermit Crabs

Despite their name, hermits like to be in groups. And the shell you see yours living in today may not be the one it’s rocking tomorrow; hermit crabs move from shell to shell as they grow. “Usually, once or twice a year, the crab will molt and get bigger, so you need to put progressively larger shells in the habitat so it has plenty of options,” says Dr. Freeman. When Hermie is ready, he’ll swap the old shell for a new one. If you provide several, he may switch back and forth.

Hermits need a warm and humid terrarium that has a secure lid, places to burrow and climb, and a shallow bowl of water for soaking. They eat hermit-crab food and chopped fruit and veggies, and live up to ten years. Just be cautious: These little crawlers are fragile and can be seriously hurt if dropped. And while they can get accustomed to being held, their natural reaction is to pinch you when frightened.

 

Bearded Dragons

No fire breathing here! “These animals are friendly and like being held,” says Dr. Freeman. Peyton Fletcher, now 13, got his bearded dragon, Ash, two years ago. “He likes to take her outside to lie with him while he does homework and reads,” says his mom, Keri Fletcher, of Spokane. Peyton feeds Ash live insects and loves it when she goes through her shedding process. “It’s really cool when the skin all comes off in one piece!” says Peyton. “And it’s fun to watch her eat, because she attacks food like prey.”

If you have two (consider getting only males or only females to prevent babies), clue in to their social behavior: When interacting with other dragons, a beardie may bob its head, wave its hand, or flare out its beard.

These reptiles can live from six to 15 years and can grow up to 24 inches long. They need a large terrarium with a heat lamp. Their diet consists of veggies, water, fruit, flowers, and small insects and lizards, which you can get at the pet store. (Get a Kritter Keeper to house the crickets and reduce how often you need to restock.

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Parakeets

These birds can be trained to fly to you, sit on your shoulder or finger, and maybe even talk or sing,” says Dr. Freeman. Parakeets live in a cage but they also need some cage-free time – which can mean flying around your home. Just be sure to close your windows, turn off hazards such as ceiling fans, and block fireplaces so the bird stays away from soot.

Parakeets, which can live for five to 15 years, are social, so consider getting a pair. But go for two males. Females are socially dominant and can be aggressive when placed together. Parakeets need regular nail trimmings, baths, and yearly vet checkups, and their diet is simple: parakeet food from a pet store.

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Rabbits

Michael Kawula, of Trinity, Florida, got his daughter, Katie,12, a bunny three years ago.“ Just like a dog that wags its tail when it’s excited to see you, Snicker runs circles around Katie and jumps on her when she enters the room,” Kawula says. The family takes him along on vacations in a small animal carrier.

At home, rabbits have other housing options: a large cage, a bunny-safe room, or a penned-off area for downtime, says Dr. Sypniewski. They can also be litter-box trained, so many owners keep the cage door open to allow their bunny to go in and out independently.

Rabbits live for seven to ten years, and their diet consists of hay, pellets, water, and an occasional treat, says Dr. Sypniewski. If you have more than one rabbit, get them spayed or neutered (because, well, you know where the phrase “multiply like rabbits” comes from).

Are your kids begging for a pet? Watch this before bringing Fido or Fluffy home, so you can help your children understand how to care for an animal.

Hamsters

Running on wheels and navigating mazes, hamsters are clever and entertaining. Since hamsters are nocturnal, they sleep while kids are in school – and they’re ready to play after dinner. But hamsters have a delicate body and need to be handheld carefully. If mishandled, they might harmlessly nip kids (and adults!). Some experts even feel they're more appropriate for slightly older kids.

"Have your child spend the first few days talking to her hamster before she tries to touch it; a parent should always be around to supervise," says Adam Goldfarb, director of the Pets at Risk program for The Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C.

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Cats

Felines might want to play one day and then ignore your kid the next. That's why they're a good choice for kids who don't mind having companionship only when their pet is in the mood. Even though kittens are cute, they're more work than a full-grown cat. You can save yourself time by adopting a cat from a shelter, suggests Goldfarb.

Another thing to keep in mind: It's more common for kids to be allergic to cats than to any other kind of pet. Before you adopt a cat, try pet-sitting a friend's for the weekend, and be on the lookout for allergy symptoms, like red eyes, itchy skin, or sniffling.

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Dogs

Fido requires more care from you and your child than any pet; every breed needs daily exercise and playtime. If your family enjoys walks in the park and running around in the backyard, then a dog might be a good fit, says Colleen Pelar, author of Living With Kids and Dogs ... Without Losing Your Mind. In fact, a recent British study found that kids who have a dog spend an extra hour a week doing physical activity.

But don't expect that your 5- or 6-year-old will be able to walk the dog on his own. "Even puppies or small dogs can be strong enough to drag a child if they get excited by a cat or spooked by a loud noise," says Pelar. "Instead, your child can help you hold the leash while you walk together."

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